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January 17, 2013

Will Boeing 787 Problems Endanger its CST-100 Commercial Spacecraft?

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Boeing's (News - Alert) flagship 787 aircraft currently sit grounded, as engineers examine the lithium-ion batteries needed to power its electrical systems after a series of in-air fires. Fixing the problem to the Federal Aviation Administration's satisfaction and delivering a solution to existing aircraft plus compensating airliners for lost flight time is going to dig into the company's bottom line. Such financial drain may impact Boeing's entry into NASA's commercial crew program, the CST-100 commercial space capsule.

NASA raised concerns about Boeing's monetary commitment to the project when it named the company as one of three companies selected to mature U.S. manned spacecraft designs for commercial flight. Boeing's “proposed corporate investment during the CCiCap period does not provide significant industry financial investment and there is increased risk of having insufficient funding in the base period," according to a NASA document discussing the selection of the CCiCap companies.

Under NASA's CCiCap (Commercial Crew integrated capability program), Boeing can get up to $460 million dollars by completing an essential 19 milestones during a 21 month period to prepare its CST-100 capsule for a first flight. 

Boeing officials have cited the need to conduct at least two flights per year to the International Space Station (ISS) in order to have a viable business case for offering commercial manned transportation services. Anything less than that would likely make the company's conservative business case to build and operate the CTS (News - Alert)-100 seven person capsule for moving people to low Earth Orbit (LEO) not viable.

Interviewed in a November 2012 Florida Today story, Boeing Commercial Crew Director Chris Ferguson said the company was thinking about putting in more money to move up the first test flight “We’re looking heavily into getting some additional Boeing investment to move that (late 2016) date to the left significantly, which we think we need to do to keep pace with SpaceX (News - Alert),” Ferguson told the newspaper.

If Boeing were to bow out sooner or later, two parties stand to benefit. NASA managers running the Commercial Crew program would win justification for insisting on competition and multiple companies participating in the program -- fighting Congressional critics that wanted a "downselect" to a single company. Sierra Nevada, the "dark horse" of the three CCiCap companies, might find itself in a position to take advantage of an early Boeing departure, perhaps receiving enough money to bring its Dream Chaser spaceplane to test flight status; currently Sierra Nevada is only funded through design review without funding for orbital test flights.

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Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli

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